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Saturday, 27 June 2015

Review: Way Station, Clifford D. Simak

This is the first book in a long time that I've read in one sitting. One factor is that it was 218 pages but mainly because it is just a really really good story - incidentally, the winner of the Hugo Award in 1964.

The book opens with a description of a devastating vista that we later learn was a scene of the American Civil War of which Enoch Wallace, our protagonist, is a survivor. The language is jarring and gorgeous: silence hanging over a place which, just moments before, had been home to screams and scorched earth.

The short first chapter is followed immediately by a conversation between two men whom work for the US government. One man, Claude Lewis, approached an Intelligence Agency to tell him of his work - namely, his spying on Enoch who lives on his family farm and seemingly does nothing. He also never seems to age, and of course they are curious. The chapter ends with an astonishing - but not yet revealed- discovery, before the viewpoint switches back to Enoch.

He, of course, is aware that he is being watched. He chooses to leave well enough alone. As the keeper of a Way Station for interstellar travel - he is the only human to know about alien existence -he knows the best thing to do is simply keep his head down. His story switches between present day and flashbacks, and it is cleverly done. Something will happen in his present that reminds him of an alien visitor he once had, or something he once did. Although the flashbacks are a large part of the book they never interrupt the flow and help build up a gradual picture of Enoch's life, which also explain better his present day dilemmas.

The story itself is set in the context of the Cold War, and one scene in the book shows Enoch poring over a map, convinced that a formula belonging to another alien race that helps predict global patterns must be wrong, since everything about it points to war. With the end of World War 2, particularly the atomic bomb, being but a recent memory, he knows how devastating it would be for the world to be drawn into another all out war, this time with destruction a hundred times worse.
It is also heartbreaking on another level, because to go to war again would be forever being barred from the galactic network, of which the Way Station is but a tiny part

The cast is small and well developed. In Enoch's neighbour, a coarse hillbilly family with a deaf-mute daughter (who possesses an ability towards the supernatural), we see a real juxtaposition of broadened horizons with their amazing potential and narrow-mindedness, bent towards violence and fear at anything out of the ordinary. In the postman, with whom Enoch talks every day, there is kindness, curiosity, and a kind of pity. In Claude Lewis, who later plays a major part, there is wonder and humility. And Enoch himself is a real mix - humble, lonely, welcoming, and secretive (for good reason). It's a wonder how in such a short space of time Simak manages to capture the struggle of the human condition, a plethora of deep human relationships, addressing of profound, eternal questions, and a simply great story to boot.

This is one of the best and most enjoyable reads, and a must for any Science Fiction fan.

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